Effective time management is every business leader’s best friend. Learn my top 10 tips for managing your time better and feeling more in control at work.
If you know me, you’ll probably be stifling a laugh at the thought of me writing anything about time management. I’ve literally won awards for being the ‘person most likely to be late to a meeting’, and for ‘using a thousand words where ten would have worked’.
Well, maybe I’ve had to try harder at this than most people and actually have something valid to share. It’s probably a bit of an eccentric view, but that’s what you’re here for, right?
So let’s start with a question. Why do you think you’re bad at time management?
Typical answers tend to include:
- “I’m not disciplined enough”
- “I’m just not an organised sort of person”
- “I’m a multitasker; it’s other people not managing their time that is the problem”
- “I’m always waiting for things from other people who aren’t available”
- “There’s just too much to do — it’s overwhelming”
- “Other people waste my time by turning up late, or not at all, or the meetings are pointless”
Most of us will have defaulted to some of these answers at one point or another. The thing is, none of them give you much of a solution to work on. You’re either blaming some personal flaw or you’re blaming other people. That’s not going to help you or anyone else.
Here’s my hot take on the subject: you’re choosing to be bad at managing your time, and if you can accept this, you can change it.
Over the next few sections, I’ll help you reframe the way you think about time so you can readdress how you’re managing it and hack your way to a more productive work life.
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Choosing to be better at time management
Let’s be clear: For all of the reasons above and more, the way you look at time is your choice.
So instead of looking at time — or the lack of it — in a negative way, here are some other ways you can spin it for a happier outlook (and a healthier calendar):
“I’m not disciplined enough”
- Can you choose to be clearer on what you want and when you want it?
- Can you choose to be clear on your boundaries and stick to them?
- If you’re late for meetings because you let earlier meetings overrun or allow yourself to get caught up in conversations that you feel uncomfortable cutting off, is that not still your choice?
Get ahead of this by starting each meeting with a time check in your agenda. Be clear that the meeting has to end on time. Set a reminder to go off 10 minutes before the meeting is due to end so you can inform the group and start wrapping up.
Even if you’re usually the one gas-bagging and making the meeting run over, you’re giving other people the permission to help the meeting to close at the agreed time. Everybody will thank you and respect you more for it.
“I’m just not an organised sort of person”
This is just plain old negative self-talk, and you’re a professional so there’s no room for that.
You choose not to organise yourself and then deal with the pain of chaos and failure that inevitably follows. Instead, choose to have the pain of being organised. It’s highly likely that you’re very organised in certain situations and parts of your life because the pain of not being organised is too great. Choose those things to build on, and tell yourself that you are an organised person, there are just some areas you need to work on. Then work on them.
“I’m a multitasker; it’s other people not managing their time that is the problem”
There are few phrases accountable for so much damage to productivity and people’s wellbeing as ‘multi-tasking’. This is the learned skill of doing multiple things at once, badly. Multitaskers tend to have lots of unfinished tasks and lots of frustrated people around them.
If you’re not focussed on the task at hand, you fail to set proper expectations for yourself and others, you don’t set your own boundaries or respect those of others, and you end up in reactive mode on all fronts, pretty much the whole time. It’s an addictive form of false productivity and it needs to stop. In reality, what you’re doing is fast-switching between tasks rather than doing both at the same time. This is exhausting and leads to inattentiveness, low energy, bad decision making and worsening performance. Stop it.
“Multi-tasking is the learned skill of doing multiple things at once, badly.” Eric Murphy, co-founder and head of revenue, BabelQuest
“I’m always waiting for things from other people who aren’t available”
You and me both, mate. The reality is, if you’re working in a busy, productive team, people are busy producing things. So their time is in demand. What you need to do is programme in some ‘proactive reactivity’. Create set times to check in with people and get their help.
You can make this a regular repeating meeting, and even mark it as ‘optional’ so you can both cancel at short notice if it’s not needed. So long as you can both agree that there should be times that you need to talk and ask for help, there shouldn’t be an issue. The problem here is that interruptions are not welcome, and you haven’t set an up-front contract with your colleagues about how to work with them, without interrupting them.
Example: I’ve got an ‘Optional Deal Review Meeting’ scheduled for 4:45pm from Monday to Thursday (there’s a different sales meeting on a Friday afternoon so it’s not needed there). If someone needs help following a sales meeting that day, then the meeting goes ahead. If it’s not needed, it doesn’t. This way, what would have been an interruption that could have derailed my time or theirs now has a dedicated time to happen instead. What could your recurring-optional meeting be? Go and add it to your diary now.
“There’s just too much to do — it’s overwhelming”
I hear you. Good busy, bad busy, it’s all the same when you try to do too much at once.
You’re going to have to choose what you will and won’t do and then stick to it. Take time regularly to prioritise the requests. Don’t use your email inbox as your main to-do list — it’s a ‘request list’ at best, and a total time-and-motivation-sucking-disaster-area at worst. Take those requests and schedule them into your diary. If they don’t fit in before their deadline, you need to ask for help, re-prioritise or drop something completely.
Power move: when scheduling them into your diary, put very specific, very simple instructions in there for yourself, so you don’t have to load it all in your brain again and then try to decide what to do. Just turn up and follow your clear instructions to yourself.
“Other people waste my time by turning up late, or not at all”
You can choose to accept this is just the way things are, or get angry about it and still do nothing to change it, or you can apply a bit more ‘proactive reactivity’ to it.
Use automation to schedule reminders ahead of the meeting, and offer attendees the ability to reschedule the meeting with a reasonable amount of notice. This puts the pressure on them to either turn up on time, take on the burden of finding a new time (and taking accountability for whatever gets delayed as a result), or just turn up on time as agreed.
“Don’t underestimate the power of a simple automated reminder ahead of time. Think about what you do when you get one.” Eric Murphy, co-founder and head of revenue, BabelQuest
“Most of the meetings I have to go to are pointless”
Your choice again. Set an up-front contract for every meeting. This isn’t just an agenda but an agreement on what the outcome will be if you agree to attend. When busy, only attend meetings if you’re critical to the decision being made. Use the RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted or Informed) method to work out when this applies.
Learn more about RACI, including definitions, examples, and a template.
Here are my top 10 tips for better time management
- Make it a rule of yours to have an up-front contract before any meeting can be booked. An up-front contract is an agreement to a specific outcome (or a choice between pre-agreed options) before you agree to spend time on something. In the world of sales, it’s often used like this: “If we agree to spend time creating a proposal for you, will you agree to meet and review it with all the decision makers, so we can finalise it and get a yes or no?” If they don’t agree to give you the time to present it and get a decision, then you don’t have to waste your time doing the proposal. Could you have a company policy to refuse meetings that have no upfront contract? “What will the outcome of this meeting be?” Seems like a fair enough question to ask.
- Create protected time. Many of my colleagues have ‘GSD’ (Getting Sh*t Done) time blocked in their diaries. When this is in place, it automatically rejects new meeting requests. If you’re lucky enough to be in your own office, put a note on the door saying “do not disturb unless the building is on fire”. Don’t abuse this though — setting aside GSD time for a relaxing midweek round of golf isn’t good time management. (Unless that’s where you get your best work done.)
- Create unprotected time. To avoid resentment from people who always seem to need you in your GSD time, set aside unprotected time too. How about a weekly AMA (Ask Me Anything)? Or “open office, 2-4pm Friday — bring questions”.
- Default to shorter meetings. Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand or contract to fit the time available. The half-hour version is rarely less productive than the full hour version. Even a 55-minute meeting can increase focus and help you use your hour more productively. Use the last 5 minutes to wrap up and schedule time to complete any agreed actions.
- Time or energy — what is more important for this task? If you struggle to concentrate, apply focus, or manage your attention, is this more about energy than time? At what point during the day are you at your most focused, energetic and efficient? This is when you should focus on your rocks, the big things that require your best energy. Are these tasks best done with the best energy or with the most time? Choose times when your energy is typically high for interacting with other people. Choose low-energy times of the day for solo work. There’s lots of useful information on this point in Dan Pink’s book ‘When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing’.
- Set artificial deadlines. Newspapers are great examples of this principle in practice. The paper always goes out full, every day, regardless of what’s actually happening in the news. Create tight deadlines, especially for small administrative tasks that could slow progress in your bigger projects. If you say something has to happen in half the time, will it still happen? Steve Jobs was famous for this. When told a new iPhone screen would take four months, he insisted it happened in eight weeks, and it did.
- Delegate, in as many ways you can. It’s not just about pushing work down the hierarchy. Use software automation, try Virtual Assistants, and assign work to colleagues who are better-suited to perform tasks more efficiently than you.
- Do it now. If you pick up an action in a meeting, is it possible for you to find the information or perform the task right then (during the meeting, even) instead of having to find and schedule time to do it later?
- Can you use stress to your advantage? Does being stressed help? Most of us would say no, but there are two sides to stress: distress and eustress. We know what distress is, but the phrase eustress has fallen out of common use. It describes those moments when pressure comes with good or helpful feelings like excitement and pleasure. Are you able to channel your behaviour and thought processes when under pressure to switch from distress to eustress? From feeling out of control to in control?
- Tell yourself that you’re good at time management, not bad at time management. What difference does this make? All actions are belief driven — if you believe you’re athletic, you behave more like an athlete. If you believe you are good at time management, then you’ll manage your time better. Good time managers have effective techniques that keep them on the straight and narrow, and you can learn those just as soon as you decide to be good at time management, too.
Could you still use some support with making better use of time across your business? We might be able to help. Our team of HubSpot experts can help you unlock potential across your business with world-class automation tools, consultancy, and agency services. Take a few seconds now to take your next step with this automated meeting booking link.
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